On Writing: Letting Ideas Percolate

I’ll be truthful–the Mendaihu Universe has been percolating in my brain for at least twenty years this past winter.

Twenty years. Isn’t that a bit long for me to be sitting on these novels? Shouldn’t they have all been written, published and made into movies by now? Shouldn’t I already be working on the next trilogy in the universe? Well, in a perfect world–yes, of course! And with that, I’d have some nice cash in the bank as well. This, however, is not that perfect world. There are reasons it’s taken me so long to get those beginning scraps of ideas into the shape they’re in now. For one, back in winter 1993-94, I only had the gung-ho to write them but the barest of plots. For another, I had to do more homework in the genre, learn what makes a good SF/F novel that people would enjoy.

But a very large portion of it was the fact that I had to learn how to write in the first place.

I’d been toying with writing science fiction during most of fall 1993, just after I’d graduated college. There were a few pieces of inspiration: Akira, the Gall Force OVAs, other SF/F-themed anime, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. And there was my music collection as well, to inspire me and keep me company.

The first few ideas popped up most likely that December–I’d finally given up on trying to resurrect one of my earlier novel ideas, and scrapped nearly everything except a single idea: an underground gang who broke the all the rules, but for the right reasons. From there I played around with a few tropes: a multi-planetary setting (created while doing laundry one afternoon on Charles Street), a giant sprawling city (part of my lifelong compulsive habit of map drawing), cyberterrorism (Hi, CompuServe and AOL! Glad to have you around!), politics (Clinton had just entered office) and so on. I hadn’t quite latched onto cyberpunk yet, though I had read a bit of Gibson by then, and within a few years we’d get a short but interesting wave of internet-themed movies (The Net, Hackers, Strange Days, and Johnny Mnemonic for example) that would add fuel to this idea. I was pretty much open to anything at that point.

A number of months later I was writing the first attempt, True Faith. [To spare you the story some of you already know, here’s the short version: TF was an extension of the “Vigil” underground gang idea with all the other inspirations I noted above, plus a twist: I added a bit of spiritual enlightenment, inspired by my then-recent foray into Wicca. It was co-written with my then-girlfriend Diana; it was mostly my idea and my writing, but she came up with a few of the character backgrounds, plot twists and wrote a few passages as well.] This version lasted from summer 1994 to probably late 1996 and was never completed, for various reasons. One of the most important being I just was not happy with the prose.

What was wrong with it, anyway? Well, for one, I think I was focused too much on inner dialogue.  The characters did a lot of thinking and contemplating and not much doing anything afterwards. For another, I’d written a lot of scenes starting something but never quite completing them. And worse, I had a habit of writing what I call “stage directions”: the character did this, he went over there, he got up and tapped a code, he did that, he went there. The end result was that I’d come up with a lot of interesting ideas and scenes, but the execution lacked any kind of oomph.

Come 1997, I chose to start again, almost completely from scratch. This was The Phoenix Effect; it retained the spiritual bent, the underground gang and the cyberpunk ideas, but the focus was now on two new characters, investigators hired to figure out why certain AI units were now becoming more human. That last idea was inspired by my 1996-8 foray into New Age spirituality, infusing the idea that the soul came from elsewhere other than Earth. This novel did get finished, and I even attempted to submit it to a few places, but I was still unhappy with it.

I toned down the stage directions, I followed through on the action, and I had the characters doing things instead of just thinking about them. What was wrong this time?

Two further problems: quantity and delivery. The description of scenes and characters was slim to nil, as I’d focused too much on getting the story out on paper. Who were these people in my novel, anyway? Why were they there? Where were they? In my head, to be honest. I had them up here in my cranium–I knew exactly what they looked like, where they were, what they sounded like…but I’d put none of that on paper. I realized part of this was due to having written this longhand–I was focusing on keeping the story moving that pausing for a few seconds to describe something felt like I’d tripped up. I’d expand on these things a little when I transferred it computer, but there was still a lot missing.

Cue the third attempt, right around 2000-1, with A Division of Souls. This would be the first novel I’d write completely on the PC. Fully-expanded, complete scenes? Check. Expanded description of characters and scenery? Check. Expansion of the characters’ backstories? BIG check. Expansion of plot? BIG check. Scenes and plot points were completely rewritten and others totally new. I even plotted ahead a few chapters before writing them, something I rarely did before then. The outcome worked so well that I ended up with not one but three novels, which I wrote well into 2004. I was quite proud of this trilogy. And yet…

What was the problem this time? Well, aside from burning out in late 2004 and never finishing Book 3, I still didn’t quite get what I was doing wrong. I had a great story idea, an extended universe to play in, well-crafted characters, and description galore. So why was I still not quite there yet?

Again: the writing. It took me a long time to figure this part out, and only recently, in the last year or so, did I finally get it. You could see the choppy edits, the “screw it, I’ll fix it later” passages, the subplots that went nowhere. In other words, I had an extremely rough draft, and I’d said “good enough”, and that was the killer. I had the finished product, but I just hadn’t bothered to polish it at all. You see, I wasn’t quite there yet. I still had that final hurdle.

This meant some major review and revision. And I mean major review. So how did I go about it this time? Well, this time out I took all three books (I’d finally finished Book 3 in January of 2010) and put them on my Nook, and proceeded to read them. And read them. And read them. AND READ THEM.

I immersed myself in these three books to the point that I had the entire trilogy arc in my head. Over the course of six months or so, I must have read all three books from start to finish through at least three or four cycles, and each time I made a mental note of what needed fixing, from big things like story arcs to miniscule things like dialogue tags. And starting in 2012, I started the biggest revision I’d ever gone through in my life. I painstakingly went through each chapter and worked the hell out of each one. Some chapters were relatively quick to work through, but those first six or seven chapters in Book 1 were almost completely rewritten from scratch–a lot of those passages hadn’t been properly revised since their 2001 inception.

As of today, I’m on Chapter 10 of Book 3. It’s been one hell of a long trip, but it’s been worth it. I learned a hell of a lot in these past few months, possibly more than I’ve ever done in the last ten years combined, about what makes a decent manuscript and what doesn’t. And most important, I finally learned how to write.

*

Now, should this have taken twenty years?  Who knows. I’ve got other interests aside from writing science fiction, and I’ve had day jobs that took precedence. I’ve had personal events intervene. And yes, just like any other writer, I get distracted easily. Am I fine that it’s taken two decades to get where I am, and I still haven’t gotten these things published? Yes, I am. I’d rather have a complete and professional product out there that I’m proud of, rather than release a half-assed, phoned-in book that I wouldn’t be able to resell, at least not to any publisher. I’ve learned other things on the way too, come up with new ideas for the Mendaihu Universe. I’m not about to write this world off just yet, not when I have more to say about it. As soon as I’m done with this major revision of the first trilogy, I’m going to start working on the next one.

So yes, sometimes it’s a good idea to let ideas percolate. Sometimes the end result is worth the wait.

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